A Framework for Understanding Automation Disengagements

In a recent study published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers explored the reasons why human operators or the automation systems themselves might deactivate partially automated driving systems. The study specifically focused on users of Tesla's Autopilot and Full Self-Driving (FSD) Beta features.

A Conceptual Framework for Understanding Automation Disengagements
Study: A Framework for Understanding Automation Disengagements. Image Credit: metamorworks/Shutterstock.com

The study was designed to investigate the factors leading to the disengagement of systems by human operators or automation under various circumstances. Moreover, it developed a conceptual framework to elucidate and forecast the occurrences of automation disengagements.


Automation disengagements refer to the deactivation of automated driving systems by either human operators or the automation itself. Understanding why these disengagements occur is essential for identifying instances where human operators deem the automation insufficient for its intended purpose.

This knowledge is particularly valuable in addressing 'edge cases'—scenarios where the automated system is pushed beyond its operational limits, prompting operators to deactivate it. Effectively managing these cases is crucial for enhancing the effectiveness of partial driving automation, reducing associated risks, and fostering broader acceptance.

Autopilot and FSD Beta represent partial (or SAE Level 2) automated driving assistance systems. These systems allow vehicles to perform tasks such as steering, accelerating, lane changes, and braking under certain conditions. However, they require constant oversight and potential intervention from human operators due to possible malfunctions or operations outside their designated operational domain.

Previous research suggests that human operators might misuse or stop using automated systems due to excessive trust or lack of confidence. Additionally, operators might preemptively disengage automation in anticipation of possible dangers, like adverse weather conditions, inadequate road infrastructure, or nearby emergency vehicles. On the other hand, automation might self-disengage due to system failures, unmet functionalities, operator inattention, or violations of speed limits.

About the Research

In this paper, the authors aimed to provide a comprehensive and systematic analysis of the factors responsible for automation disengagements. They use a qualitative approach based on the interviews of 103 Autopilot and FSD Beta users, recruited through specialized online communities and forums.

The interviews follow a pre-defined protocol consisting of open-ended and closed-ended questions, focusing on the experiences and perceptions of the users regarding automation disengagements. The interview data was then analyzed using content analysis, grounded theory, and text analysis methods to identify the categories and subcategories of the disengagement factors and to synthesize them into a conceptual framework.

Research Findings

The analysis of interview data identified five primary categories and thirty-five subcategories that contribute to automation disengagements. These main categories include the human operator's perception of automation, the operator's psychological and physical states, the operator's views on other humans, how automation perceives the operator, and the automation's limitations in its environment.

The subcategories detail specific scenarios or causes that prompted disengagements initiated by either the human operator or the automation. These include fatigue, frustration, embarrassment, software updates, anticipated failures, unnatural automation behavior, random disengagements, false alarms, undesired actions, passenger discomfort, reckless behavior, complacency, inappropriate steering torque, speed violations, adverse weather conditions, non-standard roads, road curves and hills, and object detection issues. The importance and frequency of each subcategory were recorded, supported by direct quotes from participants.

The conceptual framework for understanding automation disengagements integrates findings from the analysis with theories from control theory and human factors literature. It models the transitions between automated and manual control, illustrating the dynamic feedback loop between the human operator and the automation system.

This framework highlights the factors that influence the decision to disengage automation and discusses the possible outcomes of such actions, including impacts on safety, efficiency, trust, and user satisfaction.


The research outcomes offer valuable insights into the factors behind automation disengagements, which have the potential to enhance system efficiency and safety by informing the design, development, and evaluation of automation features, human-machine interfaces, and user training programs.

The findings could inform the regulation and standardization of automated driving systems by addressing legal and ethical concerns regarding the responsibility and liability associated with automation disengagements. Additionally, they may contribute to the acceptance and adoption of automated driving systems by bolstering trust, satisfaction, and comfort among human operators and other road users.


In summary, the paper presented an in-depth analysis of factors responsible for automation disengagements either initiated by human operators or the automation itself. A conceptual framework was introduced for automation disengagements, which integrates the human factors and control theory perspectives and provides a basis for further investigation and improvement of partially automated driving systems.

The researchers also suggested directions for future work, such as examining the impact of automation disengagements on human operators’ trust, satisfaction, and performance, as well as exploring the differences between Autopilot and FSD Beta users in terms of their disengagement behavior and attitudes.

Journal Reference

Nordhoff, S. A conceptual framework for automation disengagements. Sci Rep 14, 8654 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-024-57882-6, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-024-57882-6

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Muhammad Osama

Written by

Muhammad Osama

Muhammad Osama is a full-time data analytics consultant and freelance technical writer based in Delhi, India. He specializes in transforming complex technical concepts into accessible content. He has a Bachelor of Technology in Mechanical Engineering with specialization in AI & Robotics from Galgotias University, India, and he has extensive experience in technical content writing, data science and analytics, and artificial intelligence.


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